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Kids Do the Most Incredible Things

Summary: Kids do incredible things. Instead of trying to teach them as little adults, give them some tools and flexibility and see what they create. They may not do what you expect, but it’s fascinating (and funny) to see how they think.

Blake and I were watching our morning spoonful of Jimmy Kimmel as Jimmy chatted with the youngest American member of Mensa. He started with a very sweet conversation with two-year-old Kashe West about trains and ice cream. Then, to show off her intelligence, Jimmy quizzed her on the elements of the periodic table, showing her the symbol “K” for potassium and asking her facts about the element.

Tricks like this are impressive because a two-year-old has learned something that most adults don’t know. But what’s really happening is that Kashe is exhibiting an early form of reading. When a child learns to read they start with sight words, connecting symbols to words in the same way Kashe is doing. Kashe doesn’t know that Pottasium is spelled “P-o-t-a-s-s-i-u-m.” To her, it could easily have been spelled “K.”

Children and adults learn differently, so what’s impressive for a child is different from what’s impressive for an adult. Artificial Intelligence researchers often point out that it’s much easier for a computer to learn how to play chess than to learn how to function as a one-year-old child. A one-year-old needs to take in inputs from the world and create a whole map of the world from nothing. That’s far harder than playing world-class chess, a game based on logic.

Children are language sponges. They can even create new languages. In his book, The Language Instinct, Stephen Pinker writes that adults thrown into a new language may never fully grasp it. They often create a pidgin hybrid between the old and new languages with no consistent grammar. However, their children will not only grasp the new and old languages but will create an entirely new language, a creole, with defined rules based on that pidgin hybrid.

A friend told me about her two-year-old was playing with his Italian grandparents on his father’s side and the American grandparents on his mother’s side. He picked up an apple and showed it to his maternal grandparents and said, “apple.” Then he took it over to his paternal grandparents and said, “mela.” Then he smiled at his discovery.

I can’t blame Jimmy Kimmel for being impressed by the young member of Mensa. It’s easy to get confused when we see a child doing something that they aren’t “supposed” to do. Recently, I was trying to get an eight-year-old to do his homework. He wasn’t in the mood. But he protested by saying, “I don’t find satisfaction in doing this work.” I didn’t know what to say! Maybe I should explain to him about satisfaction and how life isn’t always fair. Or maybe how satisfaction isn’t always the goal. Then I realized that this was just a more complicated way of saying “I don’t like doing this.” Once I realized this, I answered “You don’t have to like it. Just do it!”

Children learning sight words can cause adults problems. One teacher thought it would be good to start with a single word and point it out as she read the book to him. If you’re going to choose one word, you might as well start with the word “the” the most common word in the English language. The kid got pretty good and every time the teacher came to that word, the child would point and say, “the.”

One afternoon a babysitter took the child on a walk. The child said, “The…” and point for ten seconds like a statue. The babysitter waited for him, thinking he had a frozen muscle disorder. Then, she finally let out an exasperated, “The what?! What are you pointing at?!”

She later learned that the child was showing off his newfound skill of reading, pointing out the word “the” on street signs, store awnings, and even the occasional restaurant menu.

Similar to Pinker’s concepts about language, children can understand other concepts better than adults. We often think that kids need to be spoon-fed concepts in a very rigid way—the way that we would teach them to an adult. But when you let the kids direct the learning, you get some surprising results.

I know a child who picked up some math concepts far earlier than he’s supposed to. He goes to his first math class, meant for first graders, just as he’s turning four. His first math homework said, “Draw a line between the numeral and the written word. For example, draw a line between the number ‘4’ and the written word ‘four.'”

He said “I don’t know how to do this.”

And the teacher said, “Well do you know what the numeral ‘4’ is?”

“Yes. This.” he pointed.

“OK then. The letters F O U R make the word four.”

“I know that too,” he said impatiently.

“Then what’s the problem?”

“What does draw a line mean?”

Here’s my final learning trick for kids. You can try it yourself. Dragon Box is a puzzle game for kids, but it’s secretly teaching them algebra. How old do you think a kid needs to be to learn algebra? 11? 12? With Dragon Box kids can learn the basics of algebra when they’re as young as five.

A five year old doing algebra

Kids do incredible things. Instead of trying to teach them as little adults, give them some tools and flexibility and see what they create. They may not do what you expect, but it’s fascinating (and funny) to see how they think.

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When My Career Caught the Mail Truck

Intro: One of my friends told me that at 33, married with a baby, she’s doing some soul searching. She thought at some point that she’d be set and have figured out her career, but she’s realized that things never settle and it’s all journey. This makes her a little sad and confused. Here’s my response:

Willy Wonka: “Don’t forget what happened to the man who suddenly got everything he wanted.”

Charlie Bucket: “What happened?”

Willy Wonka: “He lived happily ever after.”

Charlie and the Chocolate Factory

I used to think that there was a way to win the game of life. I thought there was a general scheme to the world and if I just worked hard enough, things would work out awesomely. This worked for a while. If I worked hard at school, I would get into a great college. If I worked hard in college I would get a great job. I thought this is the way that life worked too.

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Watching Clubhouse Get Built in Real-Time

There’s something special about being an early adopter. There are obviously painful things like capacity limits and features that don’t work quite right. But the wonderful thing, if it’s done right, is that the community and the founders work together to build something magical.

That’s the feeling on Clubhouse now. I’ve been playing around with the platform for a week. I’ve been in these unfiltered rooms with Joe Rogan, Marc Andresson, and Guy Raz. The rooms are currently capped at 8,000 users because of platform constraints. Back when I started on the platform last week is was 5,000 users. Then 7,000 users. Then, on Friday night when I joined the Joe Rogan Room (which maxed out at 7,000 users on Joe’s first day), and Paul Davison, one of the founders of Clubhouse, said, “Oh, during this call it looks like we’ve raised the limit to 8,000 users.”

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Zaid’s Unopened Hannukah Present

It was December 19, 2012. I’m horrible with dates but I remember this one. My grandparents, Bubbie and Zaid,(1)In Yiddish Bubbie means grandmother and Zaid means grandfather. had come over. They came over about once a week. We had these good Jewish grandparent/grandkid fights around how much food they should bring. They wanted to bring 2 chickens a week, some pastrami, some latkas, a quart of matzo ball soup, and then maybe something for us to eat that night when they came over. We had to explain that the fridge was already full from last week’s delivery so maybe they could just bring one chicken that week.

I was excited to give Zaid his Hanukah present. I’d gotten him a limited edition “subscription box” box from a company called Quarterly. We were getting a box curated by John Maeda. Maeda is my favorite digital artist/designer who has a wonderful way of looking at the world. When he was the President of the Rhode Island School of Design (RISD) he said, “America is a weird country. It’s like I was a waitress somewhere, and now I’m in a movie—a futuristic astronaut cast in a new kind of Wild West picture. [At RISD] I get to make, like, a Space Western.”(2)Maeda’s box was part of a RISD initiative called STEAM. STEAM = STEM + Arts & Humanities.

Footnotes

Footnotes
1 In Yiddish Bubbie means grandmother and Zaid means grandfather.
2 Maeda’s box was part of a RISD initiative called STEAM. STEAM = STEM + Arts & Humanities.
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Dolly and Me: Dolly Parton’s America Podcast

Abigail and I rarely listen to the same podcasts or read the same books. We watch TV together or movies together but that’s more about sharing the experience—especially in the pandemic. But I like play snooty public radio podcasts and Abigail really likes reading about history and politics.(1)This is my favorite quote ever from This American Life. Ira Glass is giggling that The O.C. calls his program “that show by those hipster know-it-alls who talk about how fascinating ordinary people are.” Abigail, coming from East Tennessee, kept trying to get me to listen to Dolly Parton’s America. She told me it’s this amazing podcast about Dollywood and Tenessee, where she grew up.

Then I was looking at the recent Peabody Awards (again, big media nerd). Dolly Parton’s America won a Peabody for excellence in broadcasting. Also it was produced by Jad Abumrad, of Radiolab, one of the best radio producers in the world. Between Abigail and Jad, I had to listen to it and I’m so glad I did.

Footnotes

Footnotes
1 This is my favorite quote ever from This American Life. Ira Glass is giggling that The O.C. calls his program “that show by those hipster know-it-alls who talk about how fascinating ordinary people are.”
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Rebuilding a Foundation of Trust

We had a sad day for America this week. Rioters stormed the capital to disrupt the election. Everyone has a right to protest but it’s the way you protest that matters. At its heart, a good protest is about getting your voice heard while letting other people give their voice as well.(1)The Woodward Report, Yale University’s decades-long policy on protest, has a good summary of why you should do this. This wasn’t a protest, it was an attack on the infrastructure of democracy.

Footnotes

Footnotes
1 The Woodward Report, Yale University’s decades-long policy on protest, has a good summary of why you should do this.
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Book Report: Why Fish Don’t Exist: A Story of Loss, Love, and the Hidden Order of Life

This is a book about trying to find your place in the world. Lulu Miller was always looking for a tried and true path through life, and She had a hard time as a kid. Her father was a scientist who had very strong beliefs about his atheism and the beauty and value of science. Though he thought that there was nothing special or holy about other people, he said that you still had to pretend like there was and treat other people well.

Lulu was looking for a template to base her life on. She became enamored with the story of David Starr Jordan, the original president of Stanford University. She tried to figure out how this nerdy taxonomist was able to conquer the world. He was a man who categorized things. He was the world expert on categorizing fish who somehow became a university president. Even when the San Francisco earthquake destroyed his entire collection, he didn’t let that get him down. He just sewed the labels on to as many fish as he could find(1)Sewing the labels onto the fish would make sure they didn’t come off again! and built an even greater collection.

Footnotes

Footnotes
1 Sewing the labels onto the fish would make sure they didn’t come off again!
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Book Report: The Speculative Future of Ready Player Two

Imagine a world where nothing is real. A world where you plug yourself into a simulated environment and you can have everything you’ve ever wanted. Once you plug in, you’ll be able to eat the most fantastic foods, travel everywhere, and do everything you’ve ever wanted. This is the world of Ready Player Two.

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Making the Most of This Ugly Year

All happy families are alike; each unhappy family is unhappy in its own way.

— The opening line to Anna Karenina by Leo Tolstoy.

Ziba’s Holiday Gift 2009. Featuring Ugly.

I still have a holiday gift I got in December of 2009 from the design firm Ziba. They created six brochures on trends for 2010: me, we, happy, human, old, and … ugly. (1)Design companies like to create beautiful and provocative gifts. For example, Thomas Heatherwick’s delightful Christmas gifts were featured in a museum.

Footnotes

Footnotes
1 Design companies like to create beautiful and provocative gifts. For example, Thomas Heatherwick’s delightful Christmas gifts were featured in a museum.
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Why I Write

Someone recently asked me, “Why do you write this blog?” As I didn’t have an answer ready at hand, I figured I’d write it out on this blog.

I’ve always viewed blogging as my own personal publishing platform, putting out my best material to the world. This might come from my history as a magazine writer. I want to avoid writing for an imaginary audience who maybe isn’t as smart or curious as I’d hoped. So instead, it’s written it for me and for my friends. And by “friends” it’s everyone from the people I live with to the people who just like what I write online.